Local book: The Story of the Dunedin Botanical Garden

By Grant Jacobs 10/01/2011

While not strictly a science book, and very likely only of interest to local readers or visitors with botanical or historical interests, I’d like to point to a book I recently encountered.


You’ll probably struggle to find a copy of Eric Dunlop’s work for purchase as I believe it is now out of print, but if locals are quick you may still find it on the ‘new’ books shelves on the first floor of the Public Library in the Octagon where I encountered it.

Dunlop’s book is a history that explores the development of the garden, from the days of early Dunedin. Readers outside New Zealand need to be aware that several of New Zealand’s cities were colonised by the arrival of ships carrying settlers, who’d paid passage on sailing ships to emigrate to small country on the other side of the earth.

The early settlers came to Dunedin from 1848 onwards. The land immediately around the settlements would have been very raw and unbroken in terms of farming or horticulture, as the illustrations suggest. The Botanical Garden was first established 15 years later; in 1869 it was moved to it’s present location.

The present-day Dunedin Botanical Garden covers 28 hectares, both on the flat and on the lower slopes of Signal Hill. (A PDF file map can be downloaded.) The garden is bounded to the east and north-east by further green areas.

Dunlop’s introduction nicely puts his aims of his history, one that I think is worth repeating in full:

The writing of this history is not just an exercise in nostalgia. It is driven by the hope that as we understand better the way we have come we may learn from the mistakes and successes of the past, or at least gain a wider perspective for the way ahead.

It’s hard to fault those aims, nor miss that they have wider application. These same aims might apply, say, to science histories.

My time with the book was brief. I was drawn to the old photographs and maps of the northern part of Dunedin. Locals and visitors should find it worthwhile to simply browse and better appreciate the changes Dunedin has faced over the past close to 150 years.

I was also drawn to the passing mention of some the early scientists associated with the establishment of the garden, including geologist Dr. Sir James Hector (whose thesis of the mid 1800s was ‘The Antiquity of Man’ – a bold topic for his time). He, in turn, employed botanist Buchanan. With Buchanan they toured Fiordland and what would now be parts of Aspiring National Park, collecting plants for the garden. A very colonial sort of endeavour: two scientists leading a team off into the mountainous hinterland collecting plants.

There is extensive coverage of the challenges in founding, expanding and maintaining the gardens, as you would expect, and coverage of the present-day holdings. I wish I had time to explore the development of the garden, it’s clearly an interesting tale.

I encourage checking it out. I came away reminded that you appreciate a place if you have some, even slight (as in my case), understanding of what it’s progressed through.


The Story of the Dunedin Botanical Garden: New Zealand’s First.

Eric Dunlop

284pp, with Reference, Select Bibliography, Index and Plant Index.

ISBN 0 473 08873 8

Published by Friends of the Dunedin Botanical Garden in association with Longacre Press, N.Z.

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